No Monkeying About This Time.



TV During its first hour and a half on the air MTV’s new channel The Music Factory was in complete silence. This didn’t bode well. But terrestrial digital viewers are used to sound drop outs so this wasn’t unexpected. It’s also traditional for new channels to have technical difficulties – BBC2 had a black out on its first night. More worrying is that on launch day, the channel line-up was only 70% complete and only available to 70% of the country. It isn’t typical for any service to appear fully-formed, but the two million ex-On/ITV Digital subscribers must have wondered if it would have been easier to get a dish and be done with it.

ITV Digital stopped broadcasting completely on 24 May 2002, when E4 and FilmFour went off air. Too many things had gone wrong for the company to continue as a going concern. The initial shift towards oblivion could traced as far back as when Sky began to give away their boxes free as part of their package. In order to stay in competition, the then ONdigital followed suit (they had previously cost around £250) but lacked the financial backing of their competitor. Suddenly they had a massive shortfall in finances which would only be plugged with a huge increase in viewership. But Sky could be picked up throughout the country; like Channel 5, ONdigital had a limited coverage area; it also offered a more limited programming selection and was more expensive by comparison – you could get three times as many sport and film channels on Sky compared to ONdigital for roughly the same price.

At the time of the rebrand, ITV was the most watched channel in the country. Using this established name was supposed to make what had been a fairly anonymous brand into something that people could trust. The television campaign was an eye-catching affair featuring Johnny Vegas and a carefully designed knitted monkey. The problem was although the adverts were popular they didn’t make more people subscribe. Monkey was more popular than the product. ITV Digital was little more than a cosmetic change in real terms. Existing subscribers still had the original software in their boxes (so the online guides still said ONdigital all over them), the only real change in service being two tacky little silver labels with the ITV logo on which they were meant to stick over the old company name. It was prophetic that on some designs of the box the labels didn’t quite cover the old logo. The rebrand was an extremely costly failure and the second nail in the coffin.

The third nail came with the infamous football deal. In its continued attempt to emulate Sky, ITV had bought the rights to show Nationwide League Football over a three year period, with a new subscription channel launched to broadcast the games on a pay-per-view basis. But they had misjudged the public appetite for non-Premiereship football. The only potential audience for some matches would actually be at the game which meant that often ratings would be in the hundreds (or less). But ITV had signed a multi-million pound deal. Realising the mistake they tried to renegotiate the contracts with the clubs. But the clubs had already factored the money into future budgets and couldn’t afford a lesser amount. Without the revenue to sustain the deal and their own existence, and no help forthcoming from either the government or the parent companies Granada or Charlton, ITV Digital had little choice but to call in the receivers. Dellout and Touche began administrating the closure at the beginning of May.

The vultures were already circling when the terrestrial digital license was handed back. Despite a few technical glitches it was still a viable technology. It just required someone with a vision to dust it off and try again. With over 2 million ex-ITV Digital subscribers in possession of their boxes there was a ready made audience. The bidding process was something of a one horse race. Staggeringly, ITV were seriously offering a new package, this time free-to-air but they were unlikely to win – a safer pair of hands were needed. These came in the form of eventual winner, a consortium of the BBC, BSkyB and Crown Castle UK Ltd (the technology). It was to be a non-subscription package available to anyone with the right receiver. The government’s analogue switch off plans were back on track.

So Freeview was born. Despite the suggestions that the service was offering something new, the channel list looked suspiciously like an anaemic version of ITV Digital without the subscription services, especially with the last minute entry of MTV into the mix. The only big difference was the introduction of audio only radio channels, the BBC’s digital radio services and a sprinkling of commercial offerings such as Jazz FM. But at the press conference, the BBC led consortium were keen to establish the venture as a fresh start, although there was an awareness that realistically all viewers would actually be getting was an extension of the free channels already available, and that some viewers might want more. Berwyn Roberts, the Sales and Business Development Director of Crown Castle: “Freeview offers something new to viewers who want more quality TV channels but haven’t yet been attracted by pay digital television.” But many potential viewers would be paying for it, with the adapter needed to pick up the channels being sold for around £100 (as much as the prepaid ITV Digital subscription). Was this a back door pay-per-view?

Freeview’s appearance on the 30 October 2002 was a very low key. There had been little or no actual advertising, awareness had been created via the press releases surfacing in the national newspapers. Some television coverage took place, but there was little real excitement. It simply wasn’t big news. On BBC Breakfast, Nick Higham, their Media Correspondent gave his usual dry assessment of the launch, highlighting the failure of ITV Digital (again) and commenting that adapters were available in high street stores (with a lingering shot of a shelf at Dixons). Over on RI:SE the giant video news wall was used for bulleting the main points. But again no one seemed excited by the prospect …
So was this something to get excited about? OTT investigated the channels on offer, and whether this new venture is just the thing dishless viewers have been waiting for …

General Entertainment

BBC Choice

This is a channel which has never been certain about what it wants to be. When it launched 23 September 1998, Auntie advised it would complement programming on BBC1 and BBC2 by scheduling programmes in a similar genre alongside. For example, viewers watching a classic adaptation on BBC1 could turn to BBC Choice for a documentary about the author. And so it was for a few months at least, manifested most clearly in Backstage, a behind the scenes programme. The take up of digital television was very low at the time and it became clear that the BBC couldn’t spend too much on programmes limited soley to digital viewers, so some of Choice’s original material would also end up airing on one of the main channels. Anything else would be a repeat of something from the archive. There were times when this was effective. During the launch week of Walking with Dinosaurs, BBC Choice ran a short season of previously shown documentaries about the great lizards as well as a rare showing of the Doctor Who story “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” (well rare for anyone without UK Gold). It even allowed for an extra slug of Wimbledon coverage, mostly of the outer courts. But it was very much in the same position as ITV2 – created for some future purpose, but seemingly without a coherent mission statement.

This attitude changed with the appointment of Stuart Murphy late in 1999. Murphy had built the Flextech channel UK Play into a strong brand and the BBC were hoping he would work his magic here. Giving him a larger budget and some freedom, the new controller looked at reshaping the service to target an 25 – 44 demographic concentrating particularly on entertainment, leaving the other digital services BBC Knowledge and BBC News 24 to inform. During his tenure there was a mood of innovation surrounding the channel, including weekends dedicated to large music events like Glastonbury and Music Live. It was during this period that Liquid News launched, an entertainment gossip show with an intelligent feel. The repeats were still there, but with theming – new sitcoms would collected around a night or new drama. This was catch-up television, a device copied on E4.

When the BBC proposed BBC3 as a youth-orientated channel in the vein of BBC Choice, they must have thought the transition would be quite smooth. Unfortunately although the government liked the ideas for BBCs 4, 5 and 6 (the latter two being the proposed kids channels), 3 seemed like a step too far. One BBC boss’ admission that he wanted the channel to screw E4 could not have helped. Instead of becoming part of a strategy to build the future of the Corporation, it opened up a debate as to what the BBC was supposed to be doing in the digital future. The original proposal effectively made BBC3 into a pure entertainment channel designed to draw audiences away from commercial stations – who would inevitably see it as a violation of the market place. But while the government obviously took this into account when declining the initial proposal, it was also because they felt it didn’t fulfill one the BBC’s core remit – to inform. Back to the drawing board.

A second proposal was duly made. This time the channel would still try to capture and reflect the youth market, but by offering programming largely unavailable elsewhere. Informing would be at the cornerstone of the schedule with various news programmes and documentaries. A set of conditions were issued by Tessa Jowell, the culture secretary, advising: “Programming must be of a consistently innovative and risk-taking character. 80% of the services output in terms of hours must consist of programmes specially commissioned for BBC3 and genuinely new to television. These programmes will develop untried talent on or off-screen. Equally, acquired programmes will concentrate on bringing new material and talent to the screen and not on competing for well established programmes. The Secretary of State welcomes the BBC’s commitment that the normal evening on BBC3 will, across the schedule, reflect these objectives.”

BBC3 finally had the go ahead. Now BBC Choice can more publicly become what its core audience had expected all along – a test service for BBC3. On the launch night of Freeview it is clear some changes have already been made. A critically commended news programme 60 Seconds appears on an hourly basis offering the world in one minute (featuring amongst other fast talkers ex-Big Breakfast presenter Jasmin Lowson) – this reflected what the new channel would be about then, information made funky. Strange reality TV show Diners offers confessional television wrapped around a real time docusoap format. BBC Choice is also at the cornerstone of Fame Academy, offering a show similar to E4′s Big Brother’s Little Brother. That said, there is little actually on offer here which couldn’t be found on BBC2 for example, especially with repeat showings of fashion show What Not to Wear and Coupling at the centre of the evening. If this is to be the format on offer when BBC3 finally does appear (on 9 February 2003), some commentators will know doubt wonder what all the fuss was about.

ITV2

When ITV2 launched in 1998, it wasn’t clear who its audience would be. The main channel was struggling to find an identity, and the appearance of this second service mostly looked like a sop for shareholders who might be worried that Channel 4 and the BBC were striding ahead in the multi-channel market. Also, due to a dispute with Sky it wasn’t being shown within the main multi-channel market place so ratings were very low. Other than interactive simulcasts of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, its schedule featured imports too poor to appear on the main channel (with some notable exceptions such as David Letterman and Northern Exposure, although that had already been shown on C4) and repeat showings of their soap operas. And so the channel has remained, lacking an identity of its own, looking like a poor cousin to E4 or Sky One. Its only ratings winners recently have been special editions of reality TV shows like Popstars: The Rivals and I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here – hardly enough to sustain the survival of ITV2 had the parent channel not been there to prop it up financially. But even with a programming budget of £30 million, things are still looking grim.

That said, ITV2 certainly pushed the boat out on Freeview’s launch night with Liverpool vs Valencia, the sort of live football it would have carried on the sports channel on their old platform. But this seems like coincidence. Other than that there wasn’t anything which would suggest that new digital viewers have made the right choice, unless they’re soap fans looking to catch up. Although they’d have video recorders so it’s difficult to see who all these reruns are aimed at. New viewers looking for entertainment later in the evening looked forward to an Australian game show Haunted House and When Stunts Go Bad 2, more like a Lee and Herring parody than an actual television programme, surely. ITV2 feels like a place holder, counting time until a coherent relaunch.
Documentaries

UK History

UK History is Freeview’s most visible new channel, and it hasn’t been without controversy. Part of UKTV, a network of channels run jointly by the BBC and Flextech, it must have seemed like a perfect opportunity to put the Corporation’s back catalogue to good use within the commercial market place, uphold their remit to inform, and fulfill the new appetite for history programmes. And since its just repeating the formula found on other UKTV channels like UK Food and UK Style (not to mention UK Gold) how could anyone object?

The biggest objection came from The History Channel who thought that they’d been giving the public what they wanted very nicely. In 27 October 2002 edition of The Guardian, Geoff Metzger, managing director of The History Channel in the United Kingdom was quoted as saying: “In the ’70s and ’80s there was a concern that the BBC had to be protected from the market. Now, though, we’re concerned that the market has to be protected from the BBC, which is behaving in a very predatory manner.” Metzger considers it to be unfair competition: “We’re worried that they will drive up the prices for TV rights, while at the same time the BBC will give them exclusive access to its product.” There is the possibility that UK History could outbid The History Channel for exclusive rights to Channel 4′s products as well, including the pieces by David Starkey, extending their brand even further.

The trouble with this kind of channel is it appears fully formed, nothing to indicate it wasn’t broadcasting the day before. On launch day, you could be forgiven for wondering what you’d missed. Unlike the main channels, it actually repeats the same five hours of programming three times during the day – and then offers the next programme in the same series the following day. It feels very regimental and easy. Luckily, however, the programmes are of a very high quality and make a good alternative to the daytime TV offered elsewhere. One criticism which should be levelled is that every show is about some war or other – within the space of these five hours we can see the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Battle of the Atlantic, Romans conquering and the Conquistadors. Not all history involves some kind of fighting does it?

BBC4

An embryonic BBC4, BBC Knowledge had appeared with BBC Choice in the original opening salvo of digital channels. Closer in format to UK History, rerun documentaries were repeated throughout the day on a wide range of subjects (anything from The Human Body to the Michael Palin travelogues), and the evening would be taken up with live events and World Cinema presentations. Like the early Choice it lacked an identity of its own. An afterthought.

The original launch of BBC4 in February 2002 was largely overshadowed by the appearance of the children’s channels at the same time. Whilst the kids saw posters going up throughout town centres, anyone interested in the other wares were met in prime time BBC1 with presenter George Alagiah talking about what world news meant to him. A press release outlined more clearly the audience the channel was pushing for: “BBC4 is outward-looking and global-minded. It’s for people who want more from television – more depth, more range, more stimulus for the mind. We want it to surprise, delight and challenge, but above all to offer something satisfyingly different from the mainstream.” The campaign ended with actually rather catchy tag line “Everybody needs a place to think”.

Some viewers might suggest that this used to be BBC2, and on launch night it still was for a few hours during a simulcast. The opening night schedule was meant to offer a taster of what potential viewers could expect. It has to be said it was an initial misstep with an average drama about Salvadore Dali, Surrealissimo and an extremely ponderous documentary about Goya narrated by critic Robert Hughes. The only show with potential was a piece about Michael Sandy, the artist who shredded all of his belongings and started again, something it could be argued BBC4 did as well.

The criticism had begun in earnest. The BBC had ghettoized any intelligent programme (especially arts) to a channel people couldn’t get. It’s a tough accusation to defend. In the Freeview launch week there were no straight art documentaries on any BBC television channels outside BBC4 and anything on the fringes took a populist approach – Patricia Cornell’s argument that Sickert was Jack the Ripper, or the Great Britons documentaries. But in the wider context, BBC4 may well be a killer app. For even the half interested BBC4′s schedule looks like a verdant green oasis in the desert of television. Cineastes outside London no longer have to look jealously at the rep scene there as this channel shows at least five foreign films a week; the main news programme looks at world news from a non-British point of view; the almost nightly Storyville strand covering a huge variety of topics which never fail to be interesting. During Freeview’s launch weeks, BBC4 ran a season of programmes on Harold Pinter at the Corporation; the first programme on the Freeview launch night was a documentary about Reggae; the final show Understanding John Birt. It will be interesting to watch this channel flourish under Greg Dyke.

Shopping

QVC

QVC only began broadcasting as a terrestrial network when ITV Digital lost their license, a replacement for the less appealing (and much cheaper) Shop!. Think of television shopping channels and QVC will be mentioned more than most. It’s been with us since satellite television began and so it’s only natural that Freeview should offer their services as part of its attempt to appear a serious option for those who don’t want to”upgrade”.

The approach of the station is visibly different to other channels. After watching previous attempts at shopping networks, QVC founder Barry Diller decided that rather than trying to hustle the viewer by offering supposedly one time only offers and massive price slashes, his presenters would inform the viewer about the product, which would then be of a high enough quality to generate sales. Customers liked the change and success came seemingly overnight.

As a viewing experience, its hypnotic, and everything you would expect a shopping channel to be. During the Christmas shop on Freeview launch day at 2pm, two presenters spent 10 minutes selling Santa shaped rubber stamps (£17.95 + p&p). 10 minutes later Debbie Greenwood (yes – that one – the one who used to present First Class) is selling a procession of pink sapphire rings which all look almost exactly the same (£162.64 + £3.95 p&p), suddenly channelling Tommy Cooper when she notices an ink mark on her hand (don’t ask). But QVC is all about selling, and with their high profits this approach works. Looking forward to In the Kitchen with George Foreman, then.

Sky Travel

As part of Freeview, Sky Travel experienced a partial relaunch towards becoming a general entertainment channel, with the development of zoned programming. The Lifestyle Zone features new travel documentaries and gameshows presented by the likes of Lloyd Grossman, Keith Floyd, Juliet Morris and Alexi Sayle. The Adventure Zone presents skiing holidays and safaris. The late night Hot Zone and its apparent trump card, a rerun of Ibiza Uncovered, tries to draw in the post pub crowd.

In spite of this, the central generic Holiday Zone was the most conspicuous on Freeview launch day and made the channel feel like a day long episode of Wish You Were Here … ?. Bland presenters giving bland, contentless voice-overs which sounded like they were being read from a holiday brochure. Whether these were the views of the presenter of the producers wasn’t clear. Michael Palin’s new series Sahara has had some criticism for trying to be too accessible – but that’s positively avant-garde in comparison to Claire Smith in the Seychelles (“The Seychelles is a paradise island but you don’t have to scratch too far under its surface to find its beauty.”) It felt like a series of promotional videos rather than entertainment.

Later in the day it became clear why – as working people returned home, the selling began in earnest, prime time taken up with a series of themed programmes promoting package holidays, with titles such as Florida Fun Deals, Greece and Turkey Deals and Winter Sun. The aforementioned Smith turned up here as well, stuck behind a desk this time, anchoring the commerce in a set which looked suspiciously similar to an old Sky News studio.

TV Travel Shop

Launched in 1998, and backed by Flextech, Barclays and the travel company Kuoni, TV Travel Shop ignores its competitors approach of offering related entertainment to keep viewers watching so that they can sell them holidays. The channel has positioned itself as a travel agent in the living room, and like QVC you couldn’t imagine making it appointment television for any reason other than if you were actually looking for a holiday. Vaguely familiar presenters (Adrian “That’s Life!” Mills, Mark “Blue Peter” Curry) appear and announce the holiday which is being sold, a promotional clip follows with an emphasis on the hotel or resort, then the price is given, including special offers. Repeat into infinity.

Music

The Hits

One of the mainstays of the Sky networks music output are EMAP’s pay-per-view video channels which tend to command a collective audience share of 0.16%. Based on the Big City Radio format which mimics video jukeboxes found in some trendy bars, they offer the viewer a choice of pop music, mostly anything found on commercial radio playlists. Tune into The Hits, wait for the title and number of your favourite track appears, call them up, enter your request and wait two hours for your selected song to appear. Since the software is in place, it wouldn’t have been that hard to create a new channel, especially with the proven formats like Q Music and Kerrang! found on Sky. Just create a playlist and go. Unfortunately, The Hits is identical in output to The Box and Smash Hits!. Which makes you wonder why a new channel has been created when a rebroadcast of The Box would have sufficed – another example of Freeview passing the old off as the new then. The only issue is that because the playlist is currently very limited and the videos are playing anyway, the intelligent pop fan will just wait for their favourite video to appear for free.

The Music Factory


The original MTV, created in 1981 under the watchful eye of ex-Monkee Mike Nesmith tapped into an unsatiated early appetite for music videos. Over the years its expanded into an entire multiplex of stations covering a range of demographics and popular music tastes – VH1 was an attempt to cater for an older audience, Radio 2 for the original station’s Radio 1. It’s also moved on from its charter intent as a pure music station, with original programming in the animation fields (Beavis and Butthead), documentary (Behind the Music) and pioneering docusoap, The Real World. Sky Digital viewers enjoy many MTV channels, but critically the playlists on each are very different – gone is the possibility of bumping into something you might not have heard before, not necessarily in your genre. If you like pop, you’ll end up watching MTV Hits, if you like mullets, VH1.

MTV only announced their commitment to Freeview by text message at the launch press conference. Some hoped this would signal their intent to make the channel free-to-air, but then it became clear that this new version would be created. The test broadcast featured a rolling announcement that this would be a new kind of music channel, offering a soundtrack to your family’s lives. It was an interesting concept. In the morning, pop for the kids, nostalgia music during the day, more pop when the children returned home from school, a mix of the two in prime time and then into the night with dance and rock music.

On launch day things went exactly as planned. During the day, musical choices were pleasingly erratic – new Kylie next to Aha next to Pulp, the spirit of the original MTV had returned. And so it continued into the next week. It was proving irresistible. Something surprising which could be put on in the background but glanced at for a nostalgic blast if a record you hadn’t heard in years was featured.

Then something curious happened. The channel seemed to dump its themed format and copied the playlist of rival station, The Hits, song for song. Gone was the history. Suddenly some videos entered heavy rotation to the extent that they would be appearing on both music channels at the same time. There appear to be two reasons for this. First week viewing figures for TMF had been one third of The Hits, so it could have been cold feet. In addition, MTV had lost one of its programme directors, Lester Mordue to Sky – as well as as overseeing VH1 he had also seen TMF onto the air. They seemed to be riding roughshod over his project now that he was gone. Only in recent days has the channel begun to experiment with variety again, but still little from anywhere as far back as the ’90s.

Of course whatever the reason the general viewer is the loser. In homes which haven’t seen multi-channel television before, a 24 hour music station is an exciting prospect, and The Hits certainly fits the bill as far as young people are concerned. But MTV have certainly missed an opportunity to expand their range even further – imagine a music station which could cater for a wider audience – one that mixed genres in a more eclectic fashion and includes live performances – since Freeview has been a joint venture all round, the BBC’s vast back catalogue could have been tapped into. But instead, like much of the rest of package we have two channels which are almost exactly the same going after the same audience. More wasted bandwidth.

Children

CBBC & CBeebies

A far cry from the Broom Cupboard. The reaction to the announcement of these two channels was decidedly rosier than BBC3 and BBC4. The concept of channels dedicated to two separate age groups, the branding repeated into the programming which appears on the main channels, the idea being to share presenters and shows. In shorthand, CBBC for the six to 13 year olds who tune into BBC1 in the couple of hours before Neighbours; Cbeebies for pre-schoolers who like Teletubbies and The Tweenies.

Cbeebies takes the concept of repetition to some extremes. On Freeview launch day, The Tweenies appeared on Cbeebies six times, Teletubbies clocking four appearances. This seems to be taking advantage of kids’ short attention spans. The presentation is classical Play School style – extremely patronizing unless you’re two years old (interestingly that format is being brought back so we can all wonder about where Hamble was from all over again). CBBC is all about brand extensions and repeats. Special versions of Blue Peter and consumer show Short Change have appeared here, and currently the channel is yet another outlet for the BBC’s Fame Academy multimedia concept. Throughout the day, it was in the midst of Stitch Up Week, a kids’ version of Beadles About. Entertaining and informing?

Looking at the channels as part of the wider multi-channel package, although negotiations are ongoing to have the Turner cartoon network Boomerang appearing for part of the day (with CNN and TCM making up the bread in the sandwich), CBBC and Cbeebies are the only players in the market place. Arguably they are fulfilling their duty admirably – it would have been easy to stuff them with cartoons and be done with it. But the regulators wouldn’t have liked that and they seem stronger for it. If there is a criticism, it’s their redundancy during the times when the main BBC channels are showing miniature versions. Sometimes, different episodes of The Tweenies are clashing with each other. Perhaps some more thought could be put into scheduling.

News

Sky News

Cynically one could suggest that Murdoch was eyeing his rival Ted Turner’s CNN when he proposed the idea for Sky News. But there was no doubting his commitment to the concept. This was the first British 24 hour news station, and when it launched in the heady pre-digital ’80s (6pm on the 5 February 1989 to be exact) the three people watching probably thought that television would never be the same again. You could actually watch the news at 8pm in the evening! The original branding of the channel was very much in the style of the times and fitted within a general look of all of the networks, although the original concept hasn’t changed and the channel has grown to rival both the BBC and ITV in terms of its news gathering ability. Frequently when a new policy initiative is announced Sky will be amongst the first five stations an MP will find themselves broadcasting on.

It was inevitable given Sky’s financial input into Freeview that their news network would be included. The corporation knew that they would have to supply more than money, but could not sacrifice the crown jewels to free-to-air (so no Sky One on this occasion). Sky News is the easier option to give away – it provides a demonstration of the strength of the brand, but also during the commercial breaks the opportunity to sell the rest of the network to disillusioned ITV Digital customers.

On launch day, as a watching experience its difficult not to free associate with the Chris Morris series The Day Today. There are whooshing graphics and all of the anchormen seem to have slicked back hair. The presentation style feels interchangeable with ITN, with reporters in the field being interviewed having a good shout and often taking a very earnest pose. To some extent a touch more tabloid; indeed frequently when a personality involved in a news story signs a deal with the Rupert Murdoch owned The Sun, a Sky interview will be part of the deal. We’ re also reminded again and again that this is simply a replication of the feed from satellite, not a new channel. As well as adverts for channels you can’t get, there are frequent references to the Sky News+ interactive service only available to dish owners. This lessens the impact for Freeviewers who will forever be making a mental leap to remember that their multi-channel package isn’t as generous.

BBC News 24

Being one of the most respected news organisations in the world must weigh heavy on the BBC’s shoulders. Rather like the heroine in an ’80s action film who has been captured by the enemy and thinks she can have some indemnity by screaming “I’m an American”, there can’t be a war zone in the world were a reporter wouldn’t say they’re from the BBC in order to get a story. There have been rumours that this tactic was used by some ITN journalists before now. Taking this respect and turning it into a rolling CNN-style news channel must have seemed like the next logical step.

But when the channel appeared in November 1997 it was beset by problems, mostly technical. It pioneered the idea of the automatic studio in which the director would have a more hands on role. What this related to in practice would be the wrong graphics appearing with some regularity and incorrect news clips leading to the embarrassment of Gavin Essler and the other launch news anchors. That said, they frequently did themselves few favours – there was the infamous moment when after some build-up a presenter welcomed viewers to News 25, adding a whole hour to the day.

Now News 24 is an invaluable part of the BBC’s portfolio. When 9/11 occurred, BBC1 immediately began to run the News 24 feed, Huw Edwards eventually broadcasting from that studio, coverage already fully in progress. It was whilst reporting for News 24 that John Simpson made his famous announcement that he had liberated Kabul. It also has news feature programmes, often repeated on BBC2, such as Dateline (a sort of Late Review for news), Hard Talk (a sort of Wogan for news), Talking Movies (pre-Ross Film-Ninetysomething) and Simpson’s World (a sort of 24 for news, with the reporter walking an area interviewing someone or offering a steady stream of observations and opinions).

On Freeview launch day, anyone with a receiver looking for news at odd hours would more than likely be looking here. The channel feels richer; and perhaps because of the BBC’s mystique, the viewer is more inclined to believe what they find here than elsewhere. On this channel in particular the anchor is allowed to show personality. But rather than being a televised version of Five Live, it strives for an independent editorial style which hovers between middle brow and broadsheet. Unlike the other news channels it feels like one continuous programme. Although headlines are repeated on the quarter hour it frequently has the feel of a magazine show, with many stories getting a single airing within the space of a few hours.

ITV News

When it began the ITV News channel was already in trouble. With the independent news corporation eyeing News 24, CNN and Sky News and realizing that something was missing from their portfolio, they launched with little fanfare and, looking at the production, little money. Unlike the aforementioned, it hadn’t budgeted for new programming and contented itself instead to rerun content from the parent news programmes on ITV. Its main strength was actual presentation, bringing to the fore Carol Barnes (who until then had appeared as Jasmin Lowson’s stand-in on The Big Breakfast) and David Suchet. To create meat, the approach was supposed to be multimedia across a number of media platforms, which in reality meant appearances on all the major TV platforms, streaming through their website, and text messaging. But they weren’t pioneers in any of this. The main station did look cheap though, and progressively lost its star presenters.

The coming of Freeview, has offered ITV News the chance to be relaunched to fit in with the main network, spelling the visible end of the ITN brand. It’s now effectively a 24 hour version of the tea time news, repeating the same stories every half an hour. The presenters are competent, the kind that you’d expect to find working on ITV in the middle of the night – a training ground. There are special programmes covering subjects such as the recent firefighters’ strike, but it lacks the depth of its rivals. During 9/11 it was the main news shows which fed to the channel not the other way around. News at Ten is simulcast here (presumably because the same studio is being used). But viewers looking for straightforward coverage of the news will do no worse than look here.

Sky Sports News

This sits between two stools. It’s a companion channel to Sky News, offering greater detail on sport stories, but it’s also part of the satellite subscription Sky Sports channels. Launched in August 1998, the Sky publicity website boasts that this was the first made-for-digital TV channel in the UK. It certainly has a valid contribution to make to Freeview – none of the other channels are covering sport in this kind of depth and it offers the ability to see the coverage they would otherwise keep hidden under the subscription cloud. The publicity also advises that Sky Sports News has consistently broken the biggest sports stories. This summer it was first with news of Rio Ferdinand’s transfer to Manchester United, David O’Leary’s sacking from Leeds and Roy Keane’s dramatic exit from the World Cup Finals. The channel has its own team of journalists hacking away.

Using a similar format to the business channel Bloomberg, the imagery of Sky Sports News is split into three panels. In the top left is the televisual presentation section (more of which in a moment). At the bottom is scrolling list of news headlines and results – on a Saturday for example it carries that afternoon’s football results. At the side is aggregated information – league tables and other statistics. Its a dizzying sight and often difficult to follow for a non-sport fan. The actual programming falls somewhere between the rhythmic repetition of TV Travel Shop (especially when covering football matches on a Saturday afternoon) and straight talking of Sky News. The actual set is very similar to Sky Travel though and there are times when you feel like you’re being sold the sport rather than being informed about it. But like BBC4, this is a channel geared towards a particular audience who will no doubt judge its merits.

Conclusion

Freeview isn’t a complete service. UKTV are yet to begin broadcasting their UK Homestyle channel (a wider ranging version of UK Style); Flextech who own Challenge?, LivingTV and Bravo will be carrying a service from January; Turner (who own TMC, CNN and Boomerang) are yet to decide if they want Freeview to carry something; and Channel 4 have announced a new project Channel 4 Extra, which will either carry documentaries or be an E4-lite – or a mix of both. With the gaps and spaces that appear on the Digibox, it makes the service feel unfinished. But unlike the BBC7 audio channel, they are only broadcasting a “coming soon” screen which hardly reassures the customer.

There is lot of repetition. Because it’s a joint venture, both the BBC and Sky understandably want their news channels carried. And it would be anti-competitive not to have ITV News. But with CNN banging at the gates, and Sky’s dedicated sport network it does make the service feel very samey. In addition, there are two music channels both offering essentially the same play list. And there are three shopping channels (granted with slightly different approaches but all selling). Anyone buying a new receiver now will get the feeling they’re actually paying to receive a bunch of BBC channels they’re already paying for via the license fee, plus some commercial stations showing repeats and mediocre programming.

But there are some positive points. BBC4 is a joy for anyone looking for something more challenging than the television appearing on the main channels. There are also a number of audio channels: BBC’s digital radio services have all been included which has increased their audience immeasurably and allows a nice crisp signal of Five Live; on the commercial side OneWord offers syndicated stripped runs of license audiobook material, plays and some documentaries; Jazz FM is rebroadcast here as well allowing an even greater reach into the country; EMAP channels such as Kiss FM, Smash Hits! and Kerrang! are there for fans – although the content of Smash Hits! is again hardly different to either of the video channels (and many commercial radio stations for that matter), so it’s hard to see why anyone would listen to this instead.

But there is scope to improve. ITV Digital was a very static service, channels mostly disappearing rather than coming online (cf: Wellbeing). Freeview does feel more organic. There is a suspicion that Sky might replace their Travel channel with something more entertainment orientated and on a couple of the blank channels the electronic programme guide is advising that a new service will begin there soon, so it might well be that deals are being negotiated for new material to strengthen the portfolio.

The best which can be said of Freeview at the moment, is that it’s better than nothing. It looks like it will just take a while before it becomes really something.

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